Areeba Siddiqui is a medical student at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan. Through her medical life so far, she has managed to become a self-proclaimed specialist in treating writers’ block, though truth be told, this treatment fails far too often than she’d like to admit. On the rare occasions that she has overcome it, she has been published in the newspaper Dawn and its subsidiary Young World. Her short stories have also been featured on AsianWriter and the Running Out Of Ink magazine.
Bunty Wali Aunty
Shamu realizes that they are all dogs. Those hungry, rabid, howling mutts, teeth and bones bared, roaming the streets, repulsed and avoided – that’s where he and the rest of them fall; repulsed by pedestrians, avoided by drivers.
And so he accepts it and carries on. It does not depress him. He sees freedom in their wildness. They run about as they please, bark whenever, eat whatever, with not a care in the world. And when the time comes, they die a dog’s death, independent and free, living out their natural life (unless they meet the Creator under a truck’s tires), never a burden on anyone. They live and die of their own accord. And that is what Shamu aspires to.
“Get lost you motherfucker!” And the car screeches past him as if he is a cloud of plague.
Shamu feels he suffers from memory loss at times. It is an effort to remind himself that his name is not bastard or scoundrel or motherfucker. It is an effort to recognize the sound of his own voice. Crouching on a footpath in a city that never sleeps, his words and exclamations are drowned by the honking horns of taxis and the roaring engines of the multitude of vehicles trying to speed ahead in life’s race.
“There’s that car!” he calls out to Akbar and Saleem Mian, the gleam in his eye expressing the urgency. “Run!”
Leading the way, Shamu navigates through taxis and cars stopping at the signal, careful of motorcycles that continue to zoom through the narrowest of spaces.
He confidently raps on the window of the silver Corolla. Unlike many other windows that are immediately drawn up at the sight of his approach, this one is in fact lowered as he nears.
A blast of cool air from the air-conditioned interior hits his sunburnt face. He elbows the other two boys out of the frame of the small window, lest they take up all of it.
Shamu does not have to say a word. He only stretches out his hand and smiles his widest.
“Bunty wali Aunty”, as she is known to him, cracks open the seal of a blue packet with little white “bunties” and places one in each open palm, smiling with a pleasing familiarity. She has a soft, glowing face. Shamu feels his pulse quicken whenever she smiles at him. He beams in return, taking a moment to grin triumphantly at the scowling face of the driver in the side-view mirror.
She waves at him, the window zooming back up and her face disappearing behind the tinted glass.
Shamu proudly looks at his treasure and takes his position on the footpath. He pops the white treat into his mouth, feeling the cool mint crackle in his mouth as his teeth sink into the soft center. As if by magic, the noon sun no longer seems to fry his skin and singe through his head. Shamu nods approvingly at his two friends, watching as the Corolla weaves through the traffic and vanishes into the hospital with the white walls.
She handed him a small, white, rectangular toffee. Shamu often tried to remember what she called it then. Chinggum?
“Oye Shamu!” Akbar shouts over the din of swearing drivers, chewing the cooling treat, “Why didn’t you ask her for money? Mansoor Babu will smite your ass if you don’t hand him enough tonight!”
“Shut up!” Shamu glares at him, slapping him on the back, “Next time, I won’t take you when I go to get bunties! You can get trampled under a car by my leave, begging for money!”
Akbar retaliates by punching his arm and that is all it takes to spark a battle. The rest of the boys gather around to watch as Shamu and Akbar tussle and wrestle, pulling each other’s hair and pinching waists and arms.
After few minutes of visually devouring the live show, Bittoo Bhai pulls them apart, grabbing each by the hair.
“Enough!” the eldest boy of the lot yells. “Get back to work or I’ll throw you both under a truck!”
He roughly pushes Shamu towards the traffic and a car beeps ferociously as he accidentally steps in front of it.
“Get out of the way you fool!” the driver of the taxi yells. “You want to die? I’ll kill you right now, if you want it so much!”
Not bothering to apologise, Shamu takes his place beside the electricity pole, sitting down. Sweltering and angry, he picks up a red ant seeking refuge between his toes and squishes it between his thumb and forefinger. The bunty has gone tasteless in his mouth by now, leaving a bitter aftertaste. He swallows it with great effort.
The first time he met bunty wali Aunty was at the Qaumi Taraqqi Party’s last rally. Men in red bandanas sat atop trucks decorated in the party colours of red, white and yellow, streetlights brightly lit, the QTP’s signature song blaring from mobile speakers and bullhorns. “Power to the common man: Democracy, Freedom, Justice!” was shouted in choruses, battling with the rising intensity of horns that beeped for them to move on. The trucks stood unabashedly at the roundabout, blocking all surrounding traffic, the party workers swearing and throwing punches at drivers who dared to step out of their cars to ask them to clear the road.
“Democracy! Freedom! Justice!” they shouted till it rang in the heads of everyone within a one-mile radius.
Sensing a golden opportunity, Mansoor Babu had himself made a grand appearance at the Water Pump Roundabout, albeit standing discreetly against the streetlamp, to make sure none of the boys goofed around. In a worn kurta shalwar, he looked just like another citizen, helpless in the face of impulsive political whims and demonstrations. But he was more than that.
He was the curator of one of the most successful underground businesses in the city. Each of his underlings dutifully stood at a car, rapping, crying, begging, insisting. Shamu snagged all the cars that had no windows, like the decades old Foxy models. He knew that those drivers or passengers would eventually hand him something if he stood long enough. His father had taught him that. He had been a wise man. Shamu knew never to approach the big, high cars with guards inside. Once a guard had broken Bittoo Bhai’s nose when the master inside had screamed at him to do something about the “stubborn son of a bitch.”
Shamu feels a heat rise within him. It’s inexplicable, but he feels protective of this nameless lady.
The Corolla was the last car in his zone that he had not yet approached. Shamu knew Mansoor Babu had his eyes peeled for goof-offs, so carefully peeking inside, he rapped loudly on the window.
The woman inside waved him away. Shamu was persistent. He held his ground, calling out in a weeping monotone, “Sister, in the name of Allah, lend me some money… I have not eaten in five days. In the name of Allah, sister. May He keep you happy…”
He watched gleefully as she knelt for her purse. Shamu shushed the driver, who told him to get lost.
“Hmph!” he heard her exclaim in exasperation, as she rummaged through her purse in the dark of the car. “I have no change — here, take this.”
She handed him a small, white, rectangular toffee. Shamu often tried to remember what she called it then. Chinggum?
The window zoomed up as more children began approaching the apparent site of success, all wailing and weeping, descending upon the car like ants upon a breadcrumb.
Shamu, disappointed and worried, dropped the uninspected treat in his shalwar pocket and courteously shooed off the other boys.
“She won’t give!” he said, dispersing the kids.
It was when he began examining the white treat that Akbar and Salman Mian caught him.
“Where did you find this bunty?” they interrogated.
Shamu stayed quiet.
“Tell us otherwise we’ll hang you upside down and take it!” Akbar threatened and Shamu spilled the story. They watched in awe as he popped it into his mouth. Shamu’s eyes widened as the mint dissolved and he experienced a new taste, this new cooling sensation. Seeing him enjoy it, the boys made him promise to take them along next time.
“In the name of Allah brother, lend me some money…” Shamu whines. The frustrated driver tries hard to ignore him, pressing down on the horn in the traffic as his arm juts out the windowless car.
“I have nothing!” he shouts but Shamu’s tone does not even quiver.
“Oye Shamu!” Akbar suddenly calls from behind. “There’s been an accident up ahead! Come quick!”
Shamu immediately runs up, leaving the relieved driver behind. He dodges the motorcycles and rickshaws and pushes his way through the crowd to the center of the traffic block.
“Bus rammed into the motorcycle — it was coming wrong-side,” Akbar authoritatively explains, proud to be the one with the information.
The bus driver and a passerby are engaged in a brawl, pummeling each other. The bus driver has the passerby in a stronghold by the collar while two men try to hold them back. Onlookers stare at the commotion with interest, some posing for a TV cameraman who has arrived at the scene, filming the motorcyclist bleeding on the pavement. Along with the cameras, a few policemen arrive to break up the fight, the bus driver swearing and arguing as he is dragged away. Shamu stands up on his toes to watch the motionless motorcyclist being taken away in a local charity organization’s ambulance.
The crowds disperse. Shamu returns to prey on the evening rush.
“Line up those lazy scoundrels!” Mansoor Babu orders Bittoo Bhai.
Shamu watches as Bittoo proceeds with the customary kicking and abusing, pulling the boys out of their slumber on the footpath. Shamu never sleeps in the city that never sleeps. His father had taught him that.
“What’s the Rhinoceros doing here?” Akbar asks, sleepily rubbing his eyes, leaving a noticeable black smear on his milky face.
Keeping an eye on Mansoor Babu, a potbellied man with slit-like eyes that indeed resemble those of the mammal he was named after, now enjoying a cup of tea as he nods approvingly at Bittoo’s methods, Shamu discreetly messes his hair up and anoints his face with sewage mud from the footpath. He takes his place in line immediately, crosses his eyes and twists his arm behind his back like a cripple.
The truck comes to a stop right beside their footpath, the rumbling tires sending each tiny heart in those frail bodies into a beating competition. The men have come.
Laughing and jeering, the drunk driver and his compatriots spill out from the painted and decorated truck. Mansoor Babu bows his head and greets them.
Shamu worries he will become permanently cross-eyed; his grandmother used to say that if the wind blew into crossed eyes, they would forever be stuck that way. So he stands with his head lowered, to shield his face from any wayward night wind that might sneak into the shady business at the Water Pump Roundabout.
The driver in the grimy kurta shalwar spits out a projectile of paan that lands at Shamu’s feet, leaving red splatters on his black feet. He does not dare to move.
They laugh some more.
“What’s the rate Mansoor Babu?”
“Same as ever brother — the cheapest rates you’ll get for a night.”
The driver mulls over it while the others push and toy around with the boys. One sturdy, muscular labourer pulls down Jameel’s shalwar. Jameel shrieks; Shamu shakes his head in despair.
“We’ll take this one – he’s feisty,” the muscular one offers, picking up the squirming and shrieking boy in his arms. Jameel pleads for mercy. Amateur.
Mansoor Babu magnanimously gestures, allowing permission.
Shamu wishes a silent goodbye to the squirming, screaming and crying Jameel, trying to make sense of the distorted vision through his crossed eyes.
His arm relaxes as the trucks drive away and a numbness so profound, almost stinging, spreads through him. A stray dog noses through the plastic meal plate by Jameel’s sleeping spot and strides away with the cleanly licked bones that had been left behind. And so, Jameel’s legacy disappears into the shadows of the maze of alleyways.
She is sitting in the front passenger seat this time, Shamu notices. A burly man sits hunched forward in the driver’s seat, like a bullhorn ready to charge through. He punches the horn, aggravated as the car comes to a stop at the signal.
Shamu comes to a stop two cars away and stands on his toes to glance at her. Bunty wali Aunty looks somewhat distraught. A motorcycle zooms past him, its squeaky horn interspersed with all the glories of the spoken language.
“Those bastard motorcyclists,” Shamu thinks. They are no better than him, if less. Worthless, scurrying cockroaches zooming in between tires, waiting to be squished by Pajeros five times their size.
He raps on another window, debating over whether to approach her.
“In the name of God…”
The suited man, clean shaven, ignores him. Shamu knocks at the glass with his knuckles. The man waves him away. Shamu stands adamantly.
Finally the glass lowers by a slit and a five Rupee coin pokes out, held tightly between two fingers.
Shamu frowns. His damn tie costs a hell more than that!
He takes it, loudly cursing, and moves on to her car.
A closer peek and it dawns on him that she is crying. A sliver from the streetlight washes on her beautiful, round face, now tear streaked. Shamu feels a heat rise within him. It’s inexplicable, but he feels protective of this nameless lady. The fierce face of the man beside her angers him. In the heart of hearts, Shamu knows he is the reason for the sorrow on that glowing face. And so he raps loudly. Knuckles poised, rapping until they hurt – his fury hopes to break the glass. Bunty waali Aunty does not look up.
But he does. And Shamu sees the rage in his eyes – fiery, inhuman rage. A string of abuses carries through the glass – so belligerent is his voice – his double chin dancing a jig with every outraged gesture. But Shamu has eyes only for her as she breaks down, gasping into her palms.
The signal turns green and the car zooms away. Shamu pulls his foot back just in time. He watches her leave, his heart aching for her, a feeling new to him.
A persistent honk reminds him he is standing in the middle of the road, the green signal releasing the bar on savage wildebeests thundering into a stampede. Shamu’s rage and sorrow distract him. He stumbles in front of a Bolan, his hands landing on its bonnet.
“You want to die, you dog!” the boy in the passenger seat shouts over the din of engines and horns.
But Shamu blocks it all out. He sees his place on the pavement a few feet away. A bitch, scraggly and bony, is sprawled across his sheet. Perhaps she is dead.
Infuriated, he begins shouting at her. How dare she infringe upon his property!
“Hut!” he hollers, inching towards the footpath, dodging motorcycle cockroaches.
A blinding light bursts onto his face… and the last thing he feels is the twinge of his legs separating from his body. The last thing he sees is the bitch jerk her head up and intently stare at him, as if sizing him up.
Dr. Sabeen pops a gum into her mouth, feeling the mint cleanse her palate of the strong curry.
“You know, Zia, there is this beggar boy,” she says while chewing, “at the Water Pump Roundabout. Once I did not have money to give him so I gave him an Extra. He calls it ‘bunty.’”
Zia looks up and smiles absentmindedly. But his mother knows he is still blind-texting underneath the dinner table.
She smiles, thinking of him. “He has become my favourite now.”
“Oh,” Zia says, smiling like a fool.
“Now he comes to me and says, wohi wali bunty chahiye.” Dr. Sabeen pauses. “I haven’t seen him since the night I had to drag your father from his friends to drop me to the hospital. I wonder what happened to him.”
She chews on the gum for a bit and as it acquires the bitterness of old gum, she spits it out and pops in a new one. The last one. As she chews, she makes a mental note to buy a new pack the next time she is out.